Posts Tagged ‘culture’

New Year’s in Japan

Kyoto was beautiful, that’s all I have to say. It was bloody expensive, but it was beautiful. I felt like I was truly getting a glimpse into old Japan. Or, at least, that I’d stepped onto the set of “Memoirs of  Geisha”. We joined the crowds in the cold in Gion periodically, hoping to spot one of the elusive dancing girls with their long sleeved kimono, but not a single maiko or geisha was to be seen. There were a lot of disappointed tourists. However, we didn’t let it get us down, and decided to don some kimono ourselves and become the talk of the town. There are far more foreigners in Kyoto than I’ve yet seen elsewhere in Japan, so perhaps to the Japanese it was less novel than it could have been, but nonetheless we did hear lots of comments and whispers and compliments as we wandered around the city. By night, although the geisha stayed hidden behind their bamboo curtains and paper screens, we spotted plenty of the more modern and flashy sort of entertainers, likely employees of Kyoto’s numerous “snack bars,” floating about in elegant gowns with outrageously styled hair and thick layers of make-up.

(Of course, as soon as I got back, I had to re-watch Memoirs of a Geisha, and I felt pretty special to notice at least one shot that I recognized of the canal in Gion!)

And then we made our way up to Nagano to see the world famous snow monkies!

No, but seriously….

Nowhere else in the world have monkies learned to enjoy a nice hot bath in the winter. We stayed at this lovely Ryokan (Japanese style inn) near the monkey park.

When I made the reservation, the owner informed me that the place was a thirty minute walk from the parking area. Lach poo-pooed this, sure that it couldn’t possibly be that far. Well, as it turns out, it was. A friendly father with his boy warned us of the length and slippery state of the trail just as we began to head up it. I only had about five minutes to curse and swear and haul my luggage behind me when someone from the ryokan showed up to take our bags on an ATV with chains on the front tires. From then on, at least I was able to enjoy the lovely walk through the snow.

The ryokan, at first sight, looked like nothing more than a confused collection of shabby wooden buildings and I had some reservations about the place. Could this place really get away with charging 12, 500 yen a night? Despite my doubts, it turned out to be quite nice on the inside, with sturdy wooden steps and a collection of indoor and outdoor hotspring baths.

The food was delicious Japanese style cooking, with soba noodles on New Year’s Eve for all the tenants (apparantly Japanese people always have soba on New Year’s Eve – I had no idea!) and a special New Year’s morning Japanese breakfast with black beans, bamboo, and other special foods I don’t know the name of. Nagano’s specialty is honey-glazed grasshoppers, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. Shame on me, I know. Lachlan informed me they were quite tasty, with a bit of a nutty flavor.

I wound up trying the mixed bath on the first night, braving the cold, exposure and potential strange naked man for the sake of snow and hot water – a combination I’d always wanted to try since I’d learned such things existed. Fortunately, it was just my boyfriend and I and one man completely covered in tattoos (this didn’t surprise me at first, until I remembered that tatoos have a very bad image in Japan because they are associated with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, and in fact many hot springs will not allow you in if you have tattoos), but he didn’t stay long. Then we had the bath all to ourselves with a beautiful full moon, a man-made geyser just nearby, and snow drifting down softly from the few clouds in the night sky. It’s a wonderful memory. The water, though, was extremely hot and smelled strongly of sulfur, so we didn’t last long.

In the end, I wound up catching cold from going in and out of those baths, from boiling hot to below zero temperatures, and spent the rest of my time snuffling and sneezing and worrying about how we’d make it out alive. As soon as we arrived, it started snowing, and didn’t let up at all the entire two days we were there, and me with my little car and no snow tires! I was convinced we’d either get stuck somewhere horrible or slide ourselves into a ditch.

Fortunately, my worry was for nothing, and with the help of some snow chains (that broke the second we hit the highway, but at least got us out of the mountains), I’m back in Kochi, safe and snowless. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my JTE had written my reference letter for me already, so I sent off the application for my BEd programme today. For all the fuss and worry that went into assembling it, it seemed like such a meagre collection of papers! I checked it about 8 times but I still feel paranoid that I’ve left something out. Say a little prayer for me, guys! It’s out of my hands now.

P.S. All these beautiful photos were taken by Lachlan, because silly me forgot my camera’s memory card!


Read Full Post »

First, I would just like to apologize for not writing in a while. Summer/Fall seems to be the busiest time of the year in Japan for socializing.

Today, I would like to bring up a topic that’s been on my mind lately. As an ESL teacher you are forever aware that, regardless of how much you enjoy your work, inevitably you will one day find yourself seeking employment elsewhere.

Let’s be realistic: there are very, very, few permanent ESL teachers (living in a foreign country).

With that in mind, there comes a point during your journey when you’re forced to start planning (or at least pondering) what you will do after your ESL experience.

There seems to be two general groups when it comes to this decision: Group A are those that actively want to leave and Group B are those that do not actively want to leave. Within each group are different subsections.

Group A consists of those people that have had a good experience but realize they need to move on (whether it is to another country, or just a different experience), and those people that have had a bad experience and are just trying to get this period of their life behind them.

Group B consists of those people that either cannot decide if they want to stay or leave (both options have benefits and drawbacks) and those people that wish they could stay on forever.

It should be fairly obvious that Group B would have a much harder time than Group A. So, I have been asking myself lately, into which category do I fit? It’s tough.

While this has been one of the most significant opportunities in my life, I know that sooner rather than later, I’d like to move on (at least to a different country). I also know that I will always have reasons to stay in Japan, and that pursuing them all is impossible (mainly because the more I do or see, the more I learn and then there is more that I want to do).

Whichever your situation the fact is eventually you will have to think about an “exit strategy” and whether you want to leave or not it can be a stressful and time consuming process. The best you can hope for is that your experience has taught you something and that you can use these new abilities to help you make the most out of your every situation.

Read Full Post »


enkaiI wasn’t sure what to write about this week, so I decided to take the advice of “writing what you know” and touch on a recent experience once again. Well, by recent it’s really more like the most recent, since the rest of the time it’s periodic and ongoing. I’m talking about nomikai (drinking party).

Also known as enkai (I’m not sure the exact meaning of that one, other than just “party”), anyone who has been anywhere near Japan will have had some experience of this, even if they didn’t realize it. Case in point, I once got some stickers from a friend depicting drunken cartoon men in business suits. Well before I set foot in the country, those middle-aged drunkards were already creeping me out.

They are most often associated with the work-place, but also social clubs and organizations. The Japanese see them as a chance to “bond” outside of work, since friendship and work harmony are important principals. For the most part, though, they seem to serve as an excuse for the Japanese to get hammered and act like fools, forgetting for a while all their usual social constraints. Some men, especially in the cities, seem to go out to mini “nomikai” almost every night. In Tokyo, for example, I often saw small groups of young men dressed for business, passed out in squares, stations, parks, and on benches. I was just recently in Osaka and a man was passed out, still about 90% pissed, in the hallway of the building my business hotel was in. The man helping me with the luggage merely shooed him out of the middle of the hallway, propping him against the side wall, and told him not to bother customers. He lay there snoring and hacking while I waited for my friends, and he was there still when they picked me up.

For me, these parties normally take place at the beginning of term, the end of term, graduation and entrance ceremonies, and sometimes after long, all-day meetings or when some important professor comes to pick apart our classes. However I frequently also get roped into parties held by the Board of Education, and very occasionally there is one for my taiko group. I don’t always want to go, and they can be fairly expensive (especially if you end up dragged along to second or third parties, usually resulting in horrible karaoke at some point), but it’s all just sort of part and parcel to the Japanese working life.

The latest one took place just this past Sunday, at a little Japanese restaurant a five-minute walk from the teacher’s housing. I think it was the most awkward drinking party I’ve yet attended. I find the Junior High ones the highest on the awkward scale to begin with, but in this case people seemed tired or something. They weren’t very talkative, and hardly anyone was drinking. We sat around having jilted conversations over glasses of Oolong tea. You can imagine a setting that is already awkward, and then add my lacking Japanese ability to the mix, increasing the awkward two-fold. That is a lot of awkward. After the party, they invited me back to T-sensei’s place. T-sensei wasn’t there, K-sensei was “apartment-sitting,” which was already kind of strange to me. I didn’t really want to go, but I didn’t want to leave the only other female teacher to go by herself with the two dudes, and seeing as I live literally ten feet away from the place I didn’t really have a valid excuse to back out. I don’t think I had much to worry about with that female teacher. Most of the conversation took place between her and K-sensei, while Kyoto-sensei spaced out and laughed occasionally. From the little bits I could catch of their conversation, it went from subjects like teaching methods, to dating, to what happens to your boobs when you get old. There was also definitely some gossip going on; I caught the whispering, the exaggerated facial expressions, and a few familiar names, but I couldn’t understand enough to really get much out of it. I sat there for nearly two hours, alternating between fiddling with a rubber band, tracing the pattern on the blanket we sat on, and pretending to be interested. When 11:00 finally rolled around and Kyoto-sensei excused himself, I was thrilled to jump up and escape with him.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Lots of times these parties are plenty fun. I personally prefer the BOE parties. They always seem more laid back, and everyone is always drinking as much as possible. My personal favorite was a party in the city. It started out at a fancy Japanese restaurant where I obligingly ate whale. I’ll tell you, the bland taste was hardly worth the guilt. I really don’t know what’s so great about it. Following that was a second party and a third party at karaoke. I bellowed out a couple of badly pronounced Japanese songs and the Titanic theme song, much to the thrill of my inebriated spectators, and at last around 1:00 am we all stumbled out, our party diminished to four, to get ramen and gyoza at a late-night food stand in the street.

Another time we ate small birds, pheasant, and wild bore that one of the men had shot himself. It wasn’t so bad except for having to spit out little round pellets periodically. Oh, and at one point they whipped out a bowl of raw chicken and expected me to eat some. Sorry guys, I’ve eaten raw fish, nearly-raw beef and even horse, but completely raw chicken is just pushing it too far.

Ultimately, I’ll probably never be able to drink again without resisting the urge to clap and raise my glass in an enthusiastic “kampai!”

Read Full Post »

Hola amigos, I’m pintxo de tortilla, an English Language Assistant placed in the north of Spain. Unlike my fellow bloggers, I haven’t left the comfort zone of Western culture, so my experiences will likely vary enormously from what they see and feel. Now, I’m no spring chicken to the English Language Assistant work. I was in the same region last year, albeit at a different school. I genuinely adore the work and find nothing better than the “Oh my goodness, I get it!”-face you (occasionally) see made by a student. I will be in a small, coastal, fishing town this year working at a local middle/highschool. Where I’ll be living remains undetermined and will depend on a number of factors.

So how does it feel? Last year at this time, I was terrified. I was packing and preparing lesson plans like a fiend. I was enormously scared to think that soon I would be off to a country and continent that I had no experience in, and that I’d be there for a year. This year, I’m far more relaxed. I know exactly what I’ve gotten myself into, and the only thing stressing me out is the thought of renewing my government documentation. Why? Oh my. Bureaucracy in Spain is a trip. “Three copies of this page, two of that, ten of this, three mini-photos of an unspecified nature on a pink background, preferably taken upside down by a eunuch from Tajikistan. Oh, and please pay $1.67 at the bank of your choice and return as soon as possible with twelve signatures, one from the mayor and one from the prime minister.” This MIGHT be a slight exaggeration, but I’ll tell you – only slight. As long as you bring a good book, a positive attitude, and a strong grasp of Castillian Spanish, things get done. (Eventually.) I’ve given myself ten days to renew my identification. Let’s pray that it works out.

So what was my experience like last year? I spent the first half of the year finding my feet. While I had worked in classroom settings before, I had never received any formal feedback and thus was unsure about what to do. I jumped in head first, and was thrown back out of the water with confused looks from the students, and a “you talk far too fast!” from my co-teachers. Ok, try two. Try two went better. A few “bombs” of lesson plans, but the students got accustomed to me and I started to learn how they were learning. By the end of Christmas break, I was finding my feet. Decent lesson plans combined with silly gesticulations and acting out concepts seemed to get through to the students – thank goodness I have no shame! By the end of the year, I had it figured out; no ska songs as cultural/vocabulary lessons because the kids look at you wierd, and there’s only two kids in the class who like anything that’s not pop. “Pick on” the troublemakers and they’ll begin to pay attention and… *gasp*… contribute in class! I could spend all day talking about the things I learned as a teacher, but I’m sure many of you aren’t so keen on the classroom experience.

What about culture? Holy cow. It took a bit to get used to. I went to Spain armed with a largely Mexican/South American Spanish, a Spanish that is neither widely understood nor widely respected in Spain. I was lost the first few weeks, trapped by my own vocabulary and terror. Trying to find an apartment was a nightmare. I hardly understood folks on the street, how on EARTH was I going to understand them on the phone? Thankfully, I was lucky enough to stumble across a roommate (re-)named “O” who was kind enough to deal with my terrible Spanish and show me the apartment anyhow. I ended up living on the outskirts of town, a five-minute walk from the beach, with a Spanish masters student and a British girl in the same program as me. I made friends with a number of the British, Scottish, and Irish program participants, largely because I met them before I met any other Americans. Our English-speaking group of comrades provided a sort of linguistic and cultural comfort zone to fall back on and to party with on the weekends. For the first few months I was in Spain, I didn’t really do much with the Spanish, afraid to depart from my comfort zone. Thankfully, I threw myself face-first into Spanish culture around Christmas time and haven’t looked back since. Was it difficult? Yes. Do I always know what I’m eating? No. Do I mess up verb conjugations and say shocking things on accident? Of course. However, it’s been a great experience so far, and I’m looking forward to next year’s adventure!

Read Full Post »

I must apologize to any readers that I may or may not have, now or in the future, for being so lax with keeping this updated. It’s been simply ages since I wrote anything. For that I’m sincerely sorry.

I have, however, been diligently keeping a paper journal. I’d like to keep this journal more up to date from here on out. Although I’m not sure whether Kimchi will join on, and I’m not sure whether the comic componant that we thought about will ever become a reality, I still think that my experience here in Japan is valuable and worth sharing.

That being said, rather than quoting my back-dated paper journal straight away, I’ll begin with a story that happened just five minutes ago.

Culture. It’s a loaded word. Its pronounced bunka in Japanese, and it’s a word that pops up a lot. Understandable, in a country rightfully proud of its culture.

The kanji for bun (文) stands for “art” or “literature.” I find this fitting, as it is indeed in these forms that the Japanese tend to express themselves. There are plenty of wonderful Japanese styles of painting, ceramics, flower-arranging, kimono wearing, music, calligraphy, and even martial arts that one could classify as art and/or culture here in Japan. I would even go so far as to say that they turn just about anything they do into an art.

But when everything you do is an art, there isn’t a whole lot of room for interpretation. This is a culture where harmony is paramount. There is a proper way to everything, right down to the very words you use, and there are some things that are simply not done.

Bearing that in mind, it is extremely fun to mess with their heads.

men-greeting-each_~1259879For example, shown a picture of how people in Saudi-Arabia greet one another and told to greet their friends in that same way, how do you suppose they react? By screaming at the top of their lungs, it would seem.

Fair enough. They only needed to make the gesture, anyway, and we did manage to calm them down after about 15 seconds straight screaming. You might suppose that 6th graders would react better. Well! Good luck getting them to even shake each other’s hands, especially if the other party is a girl!

However, this is precisely the reason why I think ALTs are a valuable resource for Japanese people, young and old. There aren’t a whole lot of foreigners around in Japan. More specifically, there are almost none in the rural areas of Japan. I think having a few about the place helps the kids realize that, outside of their little island, there is a whole world out there, full of culture other than their own. I think having a flesh-and-blood foreign person standing there saying, “Yes, in my country French people will greet you buy kissing your cheek,” is a useful eye-opener for them. It is not, in fact, muri (impossible)! You just get used to it. Whether or not they remember their English class when they actually encounter such a situation is hard to say, but I’m happy to have contributed in some small way to their global cultural knowledge. If I can leave them with one thing when I go, it will be with the desire to learn and with it the ability to think outside the box. At least I like to think the two go hand in hand.

I hope they’ll find ways to express themselves, and not just their culture.

Read Full Post »